Many members of class, racial and ethnic minorities in the Global North might often associate climate activism with middle-class white communities. After all, as black, brown, Muslim and/or working class people, we have to deal with racism, injustice and lack of opportunities every day, so who has time to lobby for climate justice? And indeed, colonial history and white imperialism are not just things of the past. Their effect is felt by nations and peoples today whose cultures, beliefs and ways of life can be put under threat by the domination of white, western ideals. This can also be felt when it comes to climate activism, which has been monopolised by white, western thinkers, movements and activists. Action and discourse to tackle climate change are therefore the unlikely victims of modern-day colonialism.

Valuing indigenous knowledge about nature

Indigenous communities across the globe have long practised and preached sustainable lifestyles that would help mitigate the effects of climate change. Indeed, indigenous peoples tend to be the most engaged with the world’s ecosystems – and therefore first and most directly affected by upsets in the natural order. After years of blunders by Western neoliberal agents aiming to capitalise on the resources of the Global South, indigenous knowledge is finally starting to be recognised and valued in areas of agroforestry, nature conservation, resource management and more. However, the politicisation of climate issues has led to their continued exclusion from global discourse and decision making processes.

Learning from indigenous activists in Indonesia

In order to better understand what we can learn from indigenous communities’ approach to climate justice, I spoke with Dayak activist and environmentalist Emmanuela Shinta. She sheds light on the challenges her community in Kalimantan, Indonesia face and what approaches we can take on climate change. Through her organisation, Ranu Welum Foundation, she has trained over 150 indigenous youths to tell their stories through a camera lens. Her work has been recognised in Asia Pacific and more globally, having been most notably featured in Asian Geographic and in the UNICEF White Paper Women Health & Climate 2017. The following is an account of an interview conducted with Emmanuela Shinta on climate issues in Indonesia and the world more broadly.

The indigenous people of Borneo

The Dayak are a multi-ethnic group comprising of the indigenous people of Borneo Island, the third biggest island in the world which is divided between Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. Shinta, from Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), founded the Ranu Welum Foundation in 2014 to enable social justice, and protect Dayak indigenous rights and the Kalimantan forests which are brimming with natural resources and biodiversity. According to her accounts, forest fires have intoxicated the land for an average of three months every year since 1997. For the Dayak people in particular, who live close to nature and the forest and embrace it as part of their identity, this is a big problem.

A focus on community and unity in betang culture

The main value in betang culture is communalism regardless of your differences and this is embodied through the long house (huma betang) which is inhabited by several families within the clan. It is the heart of the social structure of Dayak lives and a reflection of their unity in daily life. This unity is reflected in how the Dayak mobilise manpower in the field, how the communities ensure one another’s security, whether from criminals or by simply sharing food. This inherent aspect of togetherness and unity in the culture is useful for understanding the motivations behind their activism.

Kalimantan climate activism

Having witnessed death and suffocation from the fires and environmental threats, Kalimantan youths decided to take matters into their own hands and started lobbying to change policies that impact the environment, their communities and land. There has been some engagement from non-indigenous communities but due to their proximity to the natural world, the indigenous people are on the frontlines. “They are doing – you can’t change anything from just sitting and thinking”, Shinta stresses. She is determined to change the way indigenous people are perceived, as she believes indigenous stories and initiatives should be framed as those of heroes, not victims. By recognising indigenous agency, the international community can engage with them in a meaningful way rather than seeing them as people who need to be saved. These communities are taking action to enable change, regardless of whether or not the world recognises them for it.

Politicisation of climate issues

Economic agendas often have a reputation for conflicting with sustainable consumption and production practices. This often results in clashes with indigenous initiatives. There are numerous examples for conflicts of this sort, including Canada’s plans to build a trans-mountain pipeline and Brazil’s pro-deforestation approach to the Amazon. Both have alienated and endangered the livelihoods and cultures of the afflicted indigenous communities. In Kalimantan, 50% of the ancient rainforest has been destroyed due to the expansion of mining and palm oil corporations. Shinta recalls how in 2015, interventions due to the worsening forest fires let to many indigenous farmers being jailed and blamed as the cause of this catastrophe. Shinta believes that jailing the farmers was a tactic to convince the world that action was being taken while knowing full well that the root cause had been intentionally avoided, such as the palm oil and mining corporations.

Indigenous leadership and inclusion

The inclusion of indigenous voices is crucial to tackle climate issues but it is equally important to acknowledge and appreciate the diversity between different indigenous groups. Indigenous communities themselves recognise the value in learning from one another. Shinta has been responsible for the organisation of several festivals, such as the Bali International Indigenous Film Festival and Kalimantan Indigenous Film Festival, which aim to bring different indigenous filmmakers, leaders and their communities around the world together for this purpose. Other than these initiatives led by Shinta, platforms such as the Bioneers Conference, which calls for “Revolution from the Heart of Nature”, is one of the few that enable genuine engagement of climate issues with and between indigenous leaders. The annual UN Climate Summit has been known for its inclusion of indigenous voices as well as the Global Landscapes Forum, but there is a long way to go before these gestures of inclusion are seen as anything other than box-ticking.

Indigenous voices – supplementary or essential?

The recognition amongst climate activists and other groups that indigenous knowledge should be utilised to effectively mitigate the effects of climate change is unfortunately often limited to a perception of it as something supplementary rather than essential. Shinta’s scepticism of the inclusion of indigenous people in international decisions mirrors my own. Despite being invited to global forums and other talks, the gesture often feels hollow. “They invite you to talk but they don’t really listen,” she says. “They talk to you as justification for what they do – [so they can say] ‘well we spoke to them’”. Tensions between the Canadian government and First Nations communities come to mind – despite opposing the plans for the pipeline that would go through the indigenous tribes’ lands and the Canadian government’s claims to listen to their concerns, little consideration, if any, has been shown.

Western dominance on climate issues

The obvious culprit for this Western dominance on climate issues comes down to issues of white supremacy. Failure to acknowledge this is a failure to decolonise. If that’s the case, no real progress against climate change can be made. Indeed, the faces of climate activists in the mainstream media often have at least one thing in common: their whiteness. International media came under fire recently by a Ugandan climate activist, Vanessa Nakate, who was cropped out of a photo with her white peers, with Nakate stressing that “you didn’t just erase a photo … you erased a continent”. From Licypriya Kangujam, who shuns the title of “Greta of India”, to Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, who has advocated for action on climate change since he was six years old, the white-centric narrative that surrounds climate issues often fails to recognise or falsely reattributes the efforts of many others to the extent that Greta Thunberg spoke out against this.

Non-white, non-Western perspectives are often ignored altogether

Shinta’s irritation over the white-centric narrative stems from the fixation of journalists and analysts talking about indigenous and Global South activists solely as a by-product of their white counterparts. As far as these analsysts are concerned, the white lead and others follow. Shinta finds it strange that non-white activists are so often asked if they were inspired by the Western climate activist movements. Climate activism in non-Western parts of the world may not have received the same media attention – but this does not mean it does not exist. Shinta goes on to explain that the main problem is not that people like Greta Thunberg will receive more attention than their non-white equivalents but rather that non-white, non-Western perspectives are often ignored altogether.

Different traditions of activism, different approaches

Whilst Western and indigenous activists may have many things in common, there are also some distinct differences. Of the approaches that Western activists have taken to tackle climate change, protesting is one that Shinta supports. However, she argues, it is important to go beyond this as protesting alone cannot fix things. On the other hand, there are some very obvious disparities between indigenous ways of life and the current dominant climate-conscious lifestyles in the West. Hunting, for example, is a part of the indigenous identity. From food to furs, indigenous communities rely on animals to survive as well as for their livelihoods. Hunting also allows them to feel connected to the rest of the natural world. Meanwhile many Western climate activists have taken the approach of boycotting animal products altogether (whether meat, dairy or leather), with the aim of reducing carbon emissions and combatting deforestation for livestock.

Concerns about Western climate-conscious lifestyles

Shinta argues that, like Western conservation projects, Western approaches are problematic when they are fixated on individual factors and do not understand the ecosystem as a whole, like indigenous peoples do. These concerns about Western climate-conscious lifestyles have been echoed by others, who have argued that pastoralism is an important livelihood and making generalisation about meat consumption in relation to climate change does little to tackle the core issues. “The most appropriate response,” argues Ian Scoones, “is to seek out more climate-compatible forms of livestock development, based on existing systems, and working with people and their animals, rather than seeking a dramatic transformation that would result in increased poverty and growing inequality in already poor areas of the world.”

So where to start?

A more climate-conscious lifestyle that is not just focused on the Western model of climate activism can take many forms. From the perspective of Dayak activists a good place to start would be boycotting palm oil. According to Shinta, more than 500 companies have palm oil plantations. This industry has heavily contributed to the environmental degradation of places like Kalimantan and due to the huge demand, there is little sign that the damage will end at this rate. So before you decide to drastically transform your lifestyle in an effort to be more climate-conscious, think carefully. Is it more climate-conscious to buy the non-vegan leather bag or the petroleum-based faux leather alternative? Is consuming exotic, imported vegetables and nuts more eco-friendly than eating locally sourced meat or dairy? There are pros and cons for both, but it is important to ensure you research these issues beyond the Western bubble. This isn’t just about you helping indigenous people by listening to them – it’s about allowing them to help us all.

Written by Madiha Zeb Sadiq

Research and Development Assistant